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Blane Klemek: Woodpeckers are perfectly adapted for what they do best

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A subtle, yet telltale sign of springtime is upon us. If you listen closely, especially in the early morning hours, some species of male woodpeckers are rat-a-tat-tatting their territorial raps on their favorite trees and other objects of dubious resonance. At my home, one especially resourceful hairy woodpecker has chosen a wood duck house to announce his place in the world (I wonder what the gray squirrel trying to sleep inside thinks of it!).

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Woodpeckers are a group of birds perfectly adapted to what they do best. That is, of course, pecking wood. Numerous species of woodpeckers make their home right here in Minnesota, some all year ‘round, some for just a spell.

These fascinating birds belong to the avian order Piciformes, which are represented by eight different families. The unmistakable toucan that inhabits South America and parts of Central America is a member of this diverse group. And the family Picidae, woodpeckers, is the largest of the eight families. Woodpeckers can be found worldwide, except throughout Australia, New Guinea and the islands of the southwest Pacific. Here in Minnesota we have nine woodpeckers that frequent our woodlands and backyards.

One of my favorite woodpeckers is the downy woodpecker. “Downies”, which look like their larger cousin the hairy woodpecker, are cute lookalikes alright, but they occupy a somewhat different niche than its bigger relative. They are the smallest North American woodpecker that’s only slightly larger than a house sparrow.

I’ve watched downy woodpeckers many times land on my hanging feeders and awkwardly extract sunflower seeds. From there they usually fly to nearby trees to lodge the seed into fissures, peck a few times at the seed’s hull, and remove the meat. Their shorter bill is used differently for different forage items than that of the longer bills of hairy woodpeckers.  

Some woodpeckers, like the northern flicker, don’t spend their winters in northern Minnesota. Though quite abundant around my home during the spring and fall migration, including a couple of nesting pairs each season, it’s likely that a primary reason these birds migrate to warmer climates is because of their penchant for carpenter ants. It’s common to observe these interesting woodpeckers hunting for ants on the ground and hopping about like robins.

Other woodpeckers are not quite so endearing. The yellow-bellied sapsucker, quite numerous locally in woodlands and orchards throughout the state, are the birds responsible for the puzzling rows of small holes that people often see encircling the trunks of their favorite trees, sometimes even killing trees.

Why all the tiny holes? This woodpecker loves to consume the sap of trees and so “drills” holes through the bark, which causes the sweet liquid sap to run out. Though called a sapsucker, the yellow-bellied sapsucker really doesn’t suck sap at all. What the bird really does is to stick its brush-like tongue into its sap-filled holes to eat the sap and any insects that might be trapped in it too.

Other woodpeckers have long and barb-tipped tongues, so long in fact that they wrap around their brains. And what these marvelous tongues do is capture insects that the woodpecker uses to probe under bark and inside holes they bore to find beetles, ants, larvae, and other invertebrates.

Some woodpeckers are rare, such as red-headed woodpeckers. I’ve seen very few in my life since leaving the Otter Tail County dairy farm that I grew up on. With their bright red heads and mostly black and white pattern, these extraordinary woodpeckers are unmistakable in appearance. Like many woodpeckers, they tend to cache food for feeding on at a later time. Lots of grasshoppers and acorns get stuffed into the cracks and knots of trees, fence posts, and even buildings, by these ambitious birds.

Another woodpecker that is quite uncommon is the black-backed woodpecker. This bird prefers coniferous woodlands and often chooses dead pine trees for their nesting cavity. Black-back woodpeckers have a peculiar habit of removing the bark surrounding the hole they excavate. Sticky resin that formulates around the entrance is thought to discourage would-be predators.

And yet another woodpecker — one that has only recently begun nesting and wintering near my rural home — is the delightful red-bellied woodpecker. It was only two years ago this past September that I first became familiar with the species’ vocalization at my former work location in Detroit Lakes. Soon after, I began hearing the bird with regularity at my own home near Itasca State Park and am now enjoying watching a pair visiting my bird feeders and nesting in a cavity high in an old aspen tree near my house.

Woodpeckers have numerous anatomical features that lends themselves well to their mode of living — stiff tail feathers to help keep them propped upright against tree trunks, special arrangement of toes to assist gripping trees they are working on, and unique tongues and chisel-like bills to help them garner food. Most males of each species have some amount of red on their heads, too. Furthermore, many woodpeckers produce distinctive tapping sounds with their bills on trees and other objects that identify them to the astute birder.

Indeed, lucky we are that woodpeckers are all about us to watch and appreciate. From the pileated to the red-bellied; and from the hairy to the red-headed — and more — as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.    

(Klemek is a DNR Wildlife Manager. You can contact him at bklemek@yahoo.com.)

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